Paul Horwich – Defence of Minimalism


Minimalist Thesis:

1. Our underived endorsement of the equivalence schema is explanatorily fundamental with respect to the overall use of the truth predicate

2. That the meaning of any word is engendered by the fact about it that explains its overall use.

> Thus, the meaning of ‘true’ stems from the equivalence schema

What the Theory does not do:

1. It is not intended to provide an explicit definition of the word ‘true’, neither descriptive nor stipulative.

2. It does not amount to a substantive reductive theory of the property of being true which would tell us how truth is constituted at some underlying level.

3. It is not a ‘theory of truth’ in the sense of a set of fundamental theoretical postulates on the basis of which all other facts about truth can be explained.

The theory’s immediate concern is with the word ‘true’ rather than with truth itself. It purports to specify which of the non-semantic facts about that word is responsible for its meaning what it does; and the fact it so specifies is our underived allegiance to the equivalence schema.


Davidson: The minimalist proposal implies that one must already understand that-clauses (The proposition that snow is white is true if and only if snow is white) i.e. for the component expression ‘the propostion that’ to work, one must presuppose a standard understanding of it and thereby to acquire the concept of truth. But this surely gets things the wrong way round i.e. the notions of meaning and proposition must be analysed in terms of truth – otherwise we would not be able to account for the compositionality of meaning. Thus truth is conceptually prior tomeaning.

Response: Meanings of sentences depend on the meanings of their component words and on how those words are put together. If we take the Fregian route as opposed to the Davidsonian strategy, we can suppose that whenever a complex expression is formed by applying the meaning of the function-expression e.g. a predicate to a sequence of argument-expressions e.g. names the meaning of the complex is the result of applying the meaning of the function-expression to the meanings of its arguments. Thus, given the specifications of meanings of words in a language, it is possible to deduce characterisations of the meanings of every sentence and hence to interpret the entire language.

Davidson: Sentences like ‘The proposition that snow is white is true’, insofar as they are construed as predicating truth of the propositions to which that-clauses refer, are in fact unintelligible, since that-clauses cannot be regarded as referring terms. And this is so because there is no way of seeing how their referents would be determined by the referents of their words. But if such truth ascriptions are unintelligible, then the minimalist proposal cannot be correct.

Response: Why does Davidson stop short in his application of Frege to conclude that an expression within a that-clause does not have its standard referent, but instead refers to the meaning of that expression? We might deny that meaning determines reference, that in fact the referent of a term is fixed in part by the context in which it occurs i.e. the single meaning of ‘snow’ yields one referent for standard occurences of the word and a different referent (meaning of ‘snow’) for occurences within that-clauses. Alternatively, we can deny that the referent of a complex expression is determined by the referents of it grammatical parts and say instead that it is only for logically articulated expressions that their referents are determined by the referents of their parts. Though no longer Fregean, this nonetheless treats that-clauses as singular terms and thus conforms to Davidson’s requirement that their referents be determined by the referents of their logical parts, and that these parts have the same meanings inside that-clauses as they do outside.

Objection: What if someone denies that there is such a thing as truth (and so does not accept any instances of the equivalence schema) but can nonetheless understand our talk of truth and mean the same as we do when we use the word ‘true’?

Correct; this means that there must be some use of ‘true’ that a) is implicit in, but weaker than, an endorsement of the equivalence schema, b) is displayed by the sceptics and by ourselves, and c) constitutes what we both mean by that word. This conclusion also works if we allow (contrary to the initial proposal) that endorsement of the equivalence schema is not epistemologically fundamental. What we need then is the notion of conditional commitment which would allow someone to reject the antecendent of the conditional and yet agree with us about what the truth predicate means. The initial minimalist proposal must be revised. Meaning what we do by the truth-predicate is not constituted by an inclination to accept instances of the equivalence schema; but rather by the commitment to have that inclination, on condition that one is inclined, for some “f”, to endorse ‘ <p> is f <> p’.

Dummett: Truth is valuable: we ought to pursue it and we ought to avoid false belief. But these sentiments are not contained in (nor can they be extracted from) instances of ‘<p> is true <> p’, which are not entirely non-normative. Consequently, our concept of truth is not fully captured by the equivalence schema: so the minimalist proposal is false.

Response: The equivalence schema does explain the normative force of truth. We can explain the specific norms of belief in terms of the statement ‘one should believe that p <> p’. The equivalence schema enables us to explain our attachment to every norm of this form via a commitment to the generalisation: (x) (One should believe x <> x is true) or ‘one should believe what is true and only what is true’.


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